Could the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Go Nonprofit?
A donation link, reader survey, and grant-funded front-page story make me wonder.
It wasn’t so much the lure of a $200 gift card, which would only go to one lucky responder, than an interest in what the AJC was eager to hear from its subscribers that caused me to click through its most recent reader survey last week.
The bulk of the questions were about the public service mission of newspapers.
The paper whose regular Sunday headline for years was the dollar value of coupons inside, wasn’t asking its subscribers where they shopped or liked to travel, but to justify its own function in serving the First Amendment.
One question specifically asked how much you agree or disagree with the comment “The Atlanta Journal-Constitution deserves philanthropic support (grants, donations, etc.) because of its service to the community.”
Past surveys had asked about preferred formats — print, epaper, online, newsletters — and the demographics of its readers. This survey had some of that, but more about the need for newspapers in whatever format.
Separately, reading an article on ajc.com I came across a donation link to “Support our journalism on the vaccine and COVID-19.”
The link includes the disclaimer that “Donations are not tax deductible and are not a subscription.”
Other for-profit news organizations have been accepting donations, including BuzzFeed News, which highlights its numerous Freedom of Information Act lawsuits filed during the Trump administration — “more than any other media organization in the U.S.” — in its request.
It too notes that such donations are not tax deductible: “Your support of BuzzFeed’s journalism does not constitute a charitable donation, and your contribution is not eligible for a tax-deduction. This is part of an effort to explore a deeper relationship with our most active supporters.”
(Adding to the confusion with non-profit outlets like NPR, BuzzFeed calls its donors members and offers coffee mugs. Become A BuzzFeed News Member — BuzzFeed News Membership)
On Friday, I e-mailed the AJC’s press contact asking when the AJC began seeking reader donations and whether Cox Enterprises is exploring plans to convert or sell the AJC to a non-profit following such conversions at papers in Salt Lake City and Baltimore.
There has been no response as of this writing.
Then yesterday’s Sunday edition included a lengthy, in-depth story about the financial toll of the pandemic on Georgians. With three bylines and extensive use of bankruptcy records the effort “was produced and funded from support from the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia Journalism School and the Pulitzer Center in Washington D.C.”
The Brown Institute (columbia.edu) lists the project as one of its 2020–2021 Magic Grant recipients.
Numerous media observers have written about the crisis facing newspapers as their old advertising-supported business model is no longer viable.
Washington Post media columnist, and former Buffalo News editor and New York Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan’s recent book Ghosting the News explores many of the issues and includes searches for new models.
Sullivan quotes New York Times editor Dean Baquet as saying, apart from big national papers like the Times, Washington Post, and Wall St. Journal “I think most local newspapers in America are going to die in the next five years, except for the ones that have been bought by a local billionaire.”
That was the impetus for a Los Angeles billionaire to buy the Los Angeles Times and return it to local control. But that effort is now facing uncertainty.
Of course, the AJC is already owned by Georgia’s richest family and has been for decades, but even billionaires’ patience with ongoing financial losses wears thin.
The Seattle Times, like the AJC, is one of the few remaining family-controlled major metro dailies and has been using non-profit funding for specific projects for several years now. Still privately owned, its use of charitable funding for projects looks like the AJC’s Sunday story.
The Tampa Bay Times is for profit but owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute.
And recently, the Tribune chain agreed to sell the Baltimore Sun to a newly formed nonprofit headed by a local philanthropist after significant pressure, including from politicians, to return the paper to local control.
Complicating changes to the AJC’s status are its legacy and partial ownership ties to WSB TV and Radio. Cox Media enjoyed a cross-ownership dominance in Atlanta for decades.
In 2010 Creative Loafing published an extensive cover story reported by Scott Henry about the AJC’s flight to the suburbs and overt efforts to court an affluent, more conservative readership.
Since then, the suburbs have shifted politically, the affluent have moved intown, and the Trump era upended seemingly everyone’s relationship to the news.
Creative Loafing itself went through significant decline and is no longer the watchdog over Cox Media that it once was.
But one quote from then seems significant now: “In fact, rumors persist that Cox Enterprises has plans to get out of the newspaper business altogether as soon as Anne Cox Chambers, the surviving daughter of founder James Cox, passes on. Cox Chambers, who splits her time between Buckhead and her wine estate in the South of France, will turn 91 on Dec. 1.”
Chambers only did pass away last year at age 100.